Home > Illinois basketball > UNLV coach Lon Kruger fondly remembers time as Illini

UNLV coach Lon Kruger fondly remembers time as Illini

Lon Kruger’s time at Illinois was short, but  plenty of sweet moments littered his four seasons as the Illini head coach. Kruger quickly elevated Illinois from a middle-of-the pack Big Ten team, winning a conference title in his second season (1997-98) at the helm with a group of overachieving, fan-favorite seniors.

Even when the Illini took a step back the next season with a 3-13 conference mark, Kruger’s 11th-seeded freshmen-packed squad won the hearts of many fans with a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Kruger left following the 1999-2000 season – his third season ranked in the AP’s final top-25 poll – taking the head job with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, finishing his Illini career with an 81-42 overall record.

Following three unsuccessful seasons with the Hawks and a year as an assistant with the New York Knicks, Kruger was hired as the head of the storied UNLV program. It took seven seasons, but finally he will play Illinois in Friday’s NCAA second-round matchup at 8:20 p.m. on TBS.

Kruger, coach of the eighth-seeded Rebels (24-8), talked with media Tuesday about the matchup with the ninth-seeded Illini (19-13), his memories of Illinois and his relationship with current Illini coach Bruce Weber.

On Friday’s game …

“Very tough first-round draw, obviously. From our perspective, our players know the tradition of Illinois basketball and know the talents that they have. Coach Weber does a great job, and we know that they’ll be prepared well and play hard, so our guys are excited about playing and look forward to our first-round matchup.”

On the Rebels’ reaction to earning a No. 8 seed …

“I don’t think the players worry too much about that. I think our fans probably more so than the players. Players are just excited to be playing. Again, we know Illinois and the traditions. We don’t know their individuals too much, but players aren’t too concerned about the seed. They’re just excited to be playing.”

On his team’s makeup …

“We’ve had good success with transfers, most of which we recruited out of high school. They go to another school then we got them coming back the second time around, and they’ve done well. (Leading scorer Tre’Von) Willis is a senior, and (derrick) Jasper’s a senior: two guys we recruited out of high school. Both have been injured at times, Derrick more severely than Tre. It’s hard to believe they’re both seniors but they’ve both been productive in different ways and other guys too. We have a combination of transfers and younger guys that have been here for three or four years too.”

On his reaction to being matched up with Illinois …

“It got my attention for sure. Our guys probably didn’t even know I coached at Illinois, so I don’t think that’s a factor from a players’ perspective. (My wife) Barb and I probably the good part of it is we get to see some folks we haven’t seen in a while, people we always enjoyed talking to. We loved our time in Champaign. (Illinois athletic director) Ron Guenther, of course, is a terrific athletic director and always appreciated that relationship and all he did for us.”

On if his coaching style has changed since leaving Illinois …

“Probably different from our time at Illinois in that we’re more full-court, we’re pressuring a little bit more, trapping a little bit more occasionally in the backcourt. We’re not a big team but pretty active and always try to do things like always try to do: take advantage of the strength of your people.”

On his fondest memories at Illinois …

“A lot of memories, a lot of really good memories. Of course, the group that won the Big Ten championship (in 1998). Any time you win a championship, those are special. You like those memories. That group of seniors were critical to the development of the program. Then on the other end of it you have the group from Peoria with Serg (Sergio McClain) and his gang that was critical to help the program respond.

“Really good young group. You always like that. That’s a credit to the Peoria guys making a commitment to coming over, and they affected the recruitment of a lot of other guys too.”

On the establishment of charitable group Orange Krush Foundation in 1998 …

“Ron (Guenther) and I sat down and talked about it and the student involvement was the biggest key of course in the success of the Orange Krush. But Ron was the driving force behind that with his support.”

On his hiring at UNLV in 2004 …

“Any time as a coach, you hope they’re looking for someone with integrity anywhere. But we’ve really enjoyed our time here. Barb and I love living here. People are great, and they love their basketball – much like the people at Illinois. They are passionate about basketball and are very supportive. It’s been a good experience for us for sure.”

On his relationship with Bruce Weber …

“I’ve known Bruce for a long, a long time, more through just the recruiting and crossing paths recruiting. Watching his teams play, how hard they play, how organized they are, they’re really solid fundamentally defensively, good motion offense. I just respect his teams and how good of a job he does.”

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